Whitney Quesenbery Q&A


User Experience Design is one of those exotic (to me) areas that I know almost nothing about. Yet, it makes sense that “user experience” would suggest storytelling. Whitney Quesenbery is a practitioner who uses storytelling in User Experience Design. I’m excited about her upcoming book. She is currently working with Kevin Brooks on a book on “Storytelling in User Experience Design” for Rosenfeld Media. I’m so tickled to bring you her thoughts on yet another fascinating application of storytelling.

Bio: (From the Web site Whitney Interactive Design) Whitney Quesenbery is a user researcher, user experience practitioner, and usability expert with a passion for clear communication. She has been in the field since 1989, helping companies from The Open University to Sage Software to the National Cancer Institute develop usable web sites and applications.

Whitney.jpg She is the director of the UPA Usability in Civic Life project and has been appointed to the US Elections Assistance Commission’s guidelines development committee, where she works to ensure the usability of voting systems. She represented UPA on an Advisory Committee for the Access Board (TEITAC), working to update US accessibility regulations.<

She has served as the President of UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association), Manager of the STC Usability and User Experience (UUX), and a member of the Executive Committee for UXNet, as well as an active participant in local usability groups. In 2005 she was given the STC President’s Award for her work on communities in membership organizations, and in 2007, she was honored with a UPA President’s Award and as a Fellow of the STC.

Her most recent publication is a chapter on “Storytelling and Narrative” in The Personas Lifecycle, by Pruitt and Adlin. She’s also proud that one of her articles won an award as a Society for Technical Communication (STC) Outstanding Journal Article, and that her chapter “Dimensions of Usability” in Content and Complexity turns up on so many course reading lists. She is currently working with Kevin Brooks on a book on Storytelling in User Experience Design for Rosenfeld Media

Q&A with Whitney Quesenbery:

Q: You note in your blog that “the real value of stories in user experience design is that they can move us into the future.” Can you elaborate a bit on how stories do that and perhaps given an example of how you have used story in user experience design to move people into the future?

A: I meant something very simple. Although user experience stories are built on insights from research, their purpose is to help create something new. Often, they explore how a new or updated product can change an unsatisfactory experience into a good one. They describe a possible future condition, and in doing so help it become a reality.
This is not all user experience stories, of course. Sometimes, we use stories to present a current or past situation. But the reason we spend time thinking about current experience is to be able to create new experiences — and move us into the future.
Q: The first chapter in your upcoming book, Storytelling for User Experience Design, addresses why “stories are important as part of user experience work.” Without re-creating the chapter, can you offer a bit of insight as to why storytelling is especially important in user experience design — and do it in a way that gives an overview of UX for readers unfamiliar with the field?
A: Every UX project involves managing a lot of information. Even a small site involves balancing the business goals, user needs, and technical possibilities. When you are working on a large project it’s hard to stay focused on the goal of creating an excellent user experience, because you are managing so many details and (sometimes) conflicting needs. The other difficulty is keeping the “user” in sight. Perhaps that sounds strange for work on the user experience, but typically the users are not part of the design and development team, so it’s easy to ignore them.
With their ability to communicate so effectively, and on such a deep level, stories are one way to manage both challenges. They are a natural way to describe events, brainstorm ideas, engage the imagination, and build community around the new design.

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: In my world of user experience — which usually means technology-mediated experiences — I think it’s about finding ways to connect. We are craftspeople, in the sense that we make things for other people to use. But we often have a very tenuous relationship with those people.
Think about how strange it is to have a group of people working on software or a web application who have no real, practical understanding of the daily lives of the people who will use what they create. This is very different from the lives of traditional crafts people. When you built a house, or made a tool, you could see and touch the world and lives it would be part of.
Technology is such a paradox: it allows us to connect in so many new ways, but it also allows us to be apart.
Stories are a way of rebuilding that connection. There are many ways to tell user experience stories: personas, scenarios, comics, storyboards. They are all ways of letting us see more than just the technology we work with, and give us a window into the context of the user experience.
This is increasingly important now because of how pervasive technologies are in our lives. We need to understand all the possibilities and variations. Stories help us do that.

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: User experience is my second career. My first was in theatre, where I worked for many years as a lighting designer. When I started working on an early hypertext project, the connection between theatre and UX seemed very obvious. I used to talk about the computer screen as a very small stage proscenium.


We always had activities in UX that were “story-like”: creating scenarios to describe how a site is used, describing what we learned in user research, and creating the stories for usability testing tasks. But, none of this was formally connected to “storytelling” in my mind. That came when I first heard Stephen Denning speak, and read The Springboard.
What I love about using stories in user experience design is that it allows me to add some of the complexity and serendipity of life to the logic and analysis that dominates work in technology.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: My favorite moments in UX stories are when a story can make a point and help a team see a problem or opportunity clearly. Without going too deeply into the specifics, perhaps this example will work.”
“On our web site, some people seemed to get lost on the opening page of some great information. They missed all the navigation and links to get started, and would just… wander off. We’d seen this behavior, but never really understood it, until we looked closely. They were reading the page, and clicked on the first link, ready to dive in when.. WHAM. They were thrown into a page to order bulk copies of printed literature. Someone else skipped that link and took the next one. WHOOPS. She was back at the same page she’d started from. So she tried again. And it happened again. She went around that merry-go-round at least three times. Now we understood. We’d dangled “garbage” links in front of someone, and distracted — or frustrated them. Now we knew how to fix it. Happy reader.”

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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...


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